UB 2020: What's Been Lost in Translation?
by Peter A. Reese
Looking past all the promises, what does the UB2020 legislation really do?
Following a long, persistent, and expensive media propaganda campaign, the latest version of the UB2020 initiative was recently rolled out to a compliant and adoring crowd of local state legislators at the aptly named Center for Tomorrow. (Thank God it’s still today.) It seems like the new improved UB2020 is the solution to all our problems! It will produce more jobs than the population of Western New York! Happy days are here again! If only the evil Sheldon Silver, the obstructionist Deborah Glick, and the other corrupt New York City politicians would unshackle us from their cruel tyranny.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Let’s not read the bill. Let’s not ask what the mission of SUNY is or what the cost of this venture will be. Let’s not try to determine what we are actually buying into.
Who is pushing UB2020? Is this a bottom-up groundswell initiated by the common folk like you and me? Did the residents of Buffalo’s Fruit Belt get together and hash this out?
Or was UB2020 hatched at the source of all great ideas, the Buffalo Club, by the BBC—the bankers, the builders, and the chamber of commerce? I don’t remember being asked for my input. How about you?
Armed only with my aged, feeble brain, and handicapped by 10 years of state university education, I began to wonder and trouble. Well, what do you know: Turns out the mission of SUNY is to provide quality educational services to the people of New York with broadest possible access and charging a tuition which promotes such access (Education Law §351). There is nothing about regional economic engines or other such MBA euphemisms.
So who’s supposed to be doing this economic development stuff? Turns out the Urban Development Corporation, now masquerading as the Empire State Development Corporation, was formed in 1968 because there was pesky and unseemly urban poverty and unemployment in the state. And ESDC still says it is the “economic development engine driving job growth, strategic investment and prosperity in New York State,” according to its mission statement.
If SUNY Buffalo takes over economic development, what will the poor people at ESDC do? Provide educational services?
Has SUNY done its job since its creation in 1948? I think so. A working-class nosepicker like me could never have afforded the educational opportunities it provided otherwise. How is ESDC doing? Has urban poverty and unemployment been eliminated? So many questions.
Unable to sleep at night (in part due to an enlarged prostate), I undertook the long and arduous task of reading and analyzing the UB2020 bill (NY Senate S1502). This is an effort never before attempted by any of our local state legislators. It requires intense concentration, access to a full law library, and a good stiff drink.
One is immediately struck by the tortured, disjointed, and opaque nature of this beast. After several days of work, it dawned on me why the bill was so poorly drafted: It is attempting to accomplish something which is absurd—to take a well established and heavily funded government institution and pretend it is a private venture.
The UB2020 bill starts out by telling us that SUNY Buffalo can be our “regional economic engine” and “the catalyst for re-energizing the western New York economy.” All that is needed is to give the UB president the power to raise tuition all by himself. His increases would be limited to one and one half times the percent tuition increase in the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) issued by what the bill calls the “American Association of Universities.” (So much for proofreading: What the drafters mean is the Association of American Universities.) HEPI seems to be the product of the Commonfund Institute, part of Commonfund, “one of the leading investment firms for colleges, universities and secondary schools, foundations, hospitals and other philanthropic and tax-exempt organizations.” For professional schools, the increases would be limited to 15 percent per year, which, given the mathematics of compounding, could make UB professional schools some of the most expensive in the country in short order. So much for “broadest possible access.”
State financial support of UB is to remain the same, regardless of the president’s tuition increases, even though tuition assistance program (TAP) payments are to be adjusted upward for his new tuition rates. Which of the other SUNY campuses will volunteer to kick in more money to pay for UB’s increased TAP? Furthermore, all money generated by tuition increases will be kept at UB in the hot little hands of the local comptroller. Who even knew UB had a comptroller?
The bill goes on to perform housekeeping tasks in a convoluted attempt to define words like “dormitory” as if UB were a not a state educational institution. In addition, any “campus-related foundation,” alumni association or related entity, or UB-related limited liability company gets the same private treatment. This is followed by a slew of exemptions generally shielding construction activities from compliance with the mandates of the General Municipal, State Finance, and Education Laws, as well as vaguely authorizing new bidding requirements which accommodate the “business goals for the State University of New York at Buffalo’s UB2020 initiative.”
Next, the Erie County and Amherst Industrial Development Agencies are empowered to assist UB financially and borrow money on its behalf. This is followed by custom UB modifications to the SUNY Construction Fund portions of the Education Law to exempt UB from compliance with the State Finance Law and allow the implementation of less stringent procurement guidelines.
At last we find a deliverable item in the ocean of giveaways: The UB president must send an annual report to the governor and state legislature telling them how things are going in the competition with research universities, increasing “the well being of western New York’s economy including efforts to rebuild the downtown city of Buffalo,” women and minority issues, and the effect of tuition increases on poor kids. (I would love to see a report on 50 years of SUNY Buffalo’s efforts to help out the University District. It was once a very nice place to live and go to school.) That’s it. No Fruit Belt DisneyWorld, no Buffalo Niagara Magical Medical Corridor, no goals, no measures of performance, no milestones, no delivery schedule, no need to provide educational services, no “broad access.”
Then it’s back to the giveaways. With the approval of the SUNY trustees, UB can sell or transfer (give away?) just about any state-owned property as it sees fit, even if the sale or transfer has nothing to do with its educational mission. UB also gets to keep the money its raises through such sales of state property.
In order to make this all work smoothly, nothing in the Public Officers Law or elsewhere can stop UB employees from working at jobs for which they aren’t being paid, presumably while not doing the jobs which provide their state paychecks. They would do this as “designees” of UB “in connection with joint and cooperative arrangements” with “public, non-profit and business entities.”
Next come exemptions from State Finance Law compliance for essentially all procurements and contracts, under guidelines to be established solely by the SUNY trustees. There would be no more need for pesky and bothersome approvals by the New York Comptroller or Attorney General. This is followed by a truly bizarre modification of the term “governmental entity” to exclude SUNY while acting on behalf of SUNY Buffalo during the procurement process. (This can be a great Trivial Pursuits question in the future. Q: When is a “governmental entity” not a “governmental entity”? A: When it is SUNY acting on behalf of SUNY Buffalo.)
Under the UB2020 law, UB and its associated nonprofits would be able to acquire commodities via Office of General Services contracts, apparently limited only by the prohibition that they use the items obtained for their own purposes and not resell them. Also, UB gets to keep and spend, with legislative authorization, its own tuition, fees, user charges, proceeds of sales of products and services, energy savings, and other “self-supporting” activity revenues.
So let’s summarize UB2020. What is good about being part of government is retained. What is intended to provide oversight and standards for dealing with purchasing, accounting, or the use of government money and property is discarded. This is clearly an attempt to create a private entity that uses massive government resources without having to pay for them or answer for how they are used.
What is the justification for this fantastic leap of faith? What has UB done in the realm of Western New York economic development in the past 50 years which would lead a sane person to believe that it can be the “economic engine” of this end of the state? What the hell is an “economic engine” anyway? What is it made out of? Is it a fire-breathing, fuel-injected aluminum V8, or some wimpy electric traction motor? Or is this just crazy BBC jargon?
Whatever the answers to these questions, we deserve more from our Western New York legislative delegation than slavish devotion to the passage of a bill that they haven’t read and probably couldn’t understand if they tried. Therefore, I propose that we all contact our senator and assemblymember and give them the exam questions which follow. (Artvoice has already started.) This will be a real test of the quality of the educational services they were provided when they were growing up.
Peter Reese is a lawyer and long-time community activist. He is a graduate of the UB Schools of Engineering and Law. Reese is a devoted follower of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, but very heavily armed, and frequently has represented Artvoice’s editorial staff in court.
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